Author explores why two simple words are such a complicated choice for domestic abuse victims
More than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
More than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (Photo Credit: Jenn DeHaan, Fort Knox News) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT KNOX, Ky. – “If things are so bad, why do you stay?” “If I were being treated like that, I’d just leave.”

Just leave. These two small words are so much more complex than anyone who has never been in an abusive relationship can imagine, and why many outsiders are quick to make comments like the ones above. This is why education is so important when helping victims.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people per minute are abused by an intimate partner in the United States, equating to more than 10 million people a year.

The NCADV defines domestic abuse as willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.

Systematic — Understanding this word is key to gaining insight into what happens in abusive relationships, and why suggesting a victim should “just leave” is so arduous.

I watched someone close to me descend into an abusive marriage over the course of a decade. As I saw the abuse get worse and failed to understand why she didn’t walk away from the relationship, I began to seek answers to better provide support to my friend.

What I discovered was extremely eye-opening.

The NCADV states abusers repeatedly go to extremes to prevent the victim from leaving. Even if able to get out, the victim now faces the most dangerous time of the relationship: when an abuser become capable of following through with the many threats they’ve used to keep a victim trapped. These can include:

  • Hurting or killing the victim
  • Hurting or killing the children
  • Taking or gaining custody of the children
  • Hurting or killing pets or other friends/family members
  • Hurting or killing themselves
  • Ruining a victim financially
  • Spreading detrimental rumors about the victim

While these are common examples, abusers will tailor their threats, knowing exactly what will work best against their victims to maintain control over them. I witnessed this with my friend’s husband time and time again. He knew her job and children were the two most important things to her, so those were repeatedly the focus of his threats.

A diagram showing the variety of methods abusers use to maintain power and control of their victims
A diagram showing the variety of methods abusers use to maintain power and control of their victims (Photo Credit: Courtesy National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) VIEW ORIGINAL

Verbal abuse was another tactic he consistently used. This came in the forms of berating and belittling my friend in person and relentlessly sending phone texts, where he’d call her derogatory names and accuse her of mistruths. The level of cruelty he exhibited with this type of abuse was shocking, and it became his main form of control.

Many abusers utilize gaslighting, which is the destruction of a victim’s sense of reality through psychological manipulation. Victim advocate Tia Tinsley of the Fort Knox Family Advocacy Program explained it is the repetitive use of these forms of abuse that make choices so difficult.

“Victims may not feel strong enough, or may not even believe that they deserve better,” said Tinsley. “Both options of leaving or staying are difficult to make.”

One of the biggest hurdles for victims to get over before they can leave is how to safely escape the cycle of abuse. According to Tinsley, the glimmers of hope abusers give are part of a deliberate method to make victims believe their abuser can change.

The cycle of abuse diagram shows the repetitive way abuse continues in relationships, and why it becomes so hard for victims to leave.
The cycle of abuse diagram shows the repetitive way abuse continues in relationships, and why it becomes so hard for victims to leave. (Photo Credit: Courtesy National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) VIEW ORIGINAL

“Things are great for a time, but then little by little things start to happen,” said Tinsley. “It gets to a point where there’s an explosion or an act of violence. Then afterward come the apologies and promises it won’t happen again — until it does.

“The cycle just keeps repeating. That’s why it usually takes victims an average of seven times to leave.”

So how can we as witnesses help victims find a way to get out of an abusive relationship? Tinsley says it starts with empathy.

“I have learned that victims really need and want to be heard, believed and supported,” said Tinsley. “However, you have to consider the risk if that person isn’t ready. You have to be careful if they’re confiding in you for help.”

Those of us in a position to provide support to victims have a much better chance of helping them “just leave” if we develop a full understanding of the many reasons it’s so hard for them to do so. In addition to personal support, there’s also an important 24/7 resource we need victims to know about: the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The NCADV reports that on any given day, domestic violence hotlines nationwide receive over 20,000 calls. When victims call, a trained professional will be able to discuss what’s going on and guide them forward in any way they need.

While domestic violence does not discriminate against gender, race, income level or religion, it most commonly happens to women between the ages of 18-24. One in two female murder victims in the United States are killed by intimate partners.

If a victim does reach out and open up about experiencing abuse, or we see the signs that something may be going on, Tinsley said simply showing you care speaks volumes.

“It is important not to make judgments if they go back to the situation because they may never ask for your help again,” said Tinsley. “Be ready to help them when they are ready. You can really make a difference — even save somebody.”

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Editor’s note: The National Domestic Violence accepts calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-799-7233, or by sending “START” to 88788 to begin a text conversation.